Evangelical Questions: The Garden or the Cross?

by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC

Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Gethsemane and the crucifixion. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.

Before we get started I want to remind you about the FAIR conference (August 2-4) and tell you about another one of the talks that will be happening. Derek Westra will be speaking on the portrayal of Latter-day Saints in television. Derek works for the church and leads a team that makes sure people around the world have access to information about the church presented in a way their culture can understand. And they do a fair amount of monitoring how the church and its members are portrayed in order to understand what information needs to be available as a corrective when things go wrong. His talk should be fascinating. He is speaking on Wednesday morning Aug 2. You can buy tickets to attend in person in Provo, Utah, or you can watch through streaming for free – we just ask that you go to the FAIR website and sign up for that.

Today we’re going to talk about what is, in my opinion, one of the strangest things that sometimes divides Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints and that is talking about Gethsemane and the Cross. Traditionally Evangelicals place more importance on the cross – it’s where the actual physical death happens. And Latter-day Saints have placed more importance on Gethsemane because it is where the Savior suffered emotionally and psychologically for our sins. All of this is leading us into a discussion on atonement theories, but that’s not until next week. It also sort of veers into a discussion we’ve had a couple of times here about, “Don’t you worship a different Jesus?” But this week we want to look at how these 2 different ideas about Gethsemane and the Cross developed and what exactly is going on.

And before I even get very far I must refer you to two resources that help. One is Elder Holland’s 2022 talk called, “Lifted Up Upon the Cross,” and the other is the FAIR article titled The Garden and The Cross. Both are very helpful and will add to this discussion.

Use of symbols

As usual around here we start with some history. Elder Holland mentions in his talk, and you can read about this in lots of other places, that the cross was not immediately a symbol for the early Christians. And it’s not because they didn’t use symbols. They used a lot of symbols, in part because a huge percentage of the population was illiterate, but also because at various times in the first 4 centuries of Christianity, it was illegal to be a Christian so they sometimes had to speak in a kind of code. Some of those early symbols would mean something to us today like the dove, the good shepherd, and the lamb, others wouldn’t immediately speak to us. For example, early Christians used the peacock as a symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ. Why a peacock? They had a cultural belief at that time that the flesh from a peacock didn’t decay after death. I don’t actually know why they thought that – certainly all it would take is killing 1 of them and seeing that its flesh actually did decay to disprove that, but it was a common cultural belief at the time. So a peacock was used to represent Christ’s rising from the dead. They also used the pelican as a symbol for Christ’s death. Why? In nature, pelicans have a behavior of sometimes wounding themselves called “vulning” so that their young can eat their flesh if there is no other food source available. The early believers looked at this and likened it to what Christ was doing for us on the cross. Eventually, around the 4th century, it starts to become a more well-used symbol.

How did the cross develop as a symbol in America?

There is a story told in the journal “Church History” (a Protestant journal broadly about Christian history) where in 1834 the rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Burlington, New Jersey decides to place a cross on top of their newly designed church. And basically, the entire community of Protestants in that city lose their minds over it. In that era, it is just not the thing Protestants do. They called it an “outward emblem of Popery.” Using a cross is a very Catholic thing in that era. But things were starting to shift. The Victorian Era – starting around the 1840’s – ushered in an era of fascination with nature. And the Protestants who had gotten interested in the cross as a symbol capitalized on this subtly introducing crosses into Christian worship that were covered in flowers, leaves, or vines. The symbolism was obvious – something beautiful and alive sprouting out of something intended to cause death. Into the 1900’s there is a growing interest in neogothic architecture, which certainly included crosses. And many new churches in America wanted to have buildings in the neogothic style. So during this era the flowers and vines on crosses disappear and we start to see replicas of medieval crosses. During all of this, Baptist churches were the longest hold-outs. They were staunchly anti-Catholic and only started using crosses when one of their preachers had the idea that reclaiming this Catholic symbol might trick Catholics into listening to them, and then they could teach them their Baptist ways.

So, in the 1800’s there is a lot of movement on how people are thinking of the cross. But our church was being formed in the 1830’s, primarily with converts from other Protestant faiths who had not yet come to embrace the use of a cross. And by the 1850’s the church is forced into taking an isolationist stance on a lot of things and wasn’t really participating in much dialogue with other faiths, so the movement that was happening between various Protestant groups on the cross was not really happening in our church. 100 years later most Protestant groups had developed to the point where a cross was not just okay, it was expected. But our church developed differently and for us, 100 years later, we see David O. McKay saying that the cross is, “A Catholic form of worship,” which is very much what Protestants were saying 100 years earlier.

So how did the Latter-day Saint emphasis on Gethsemane come to be?

Well, it didn’t come out of nowhere. The Evangelical criticism is that we’re trying to avoid the reality of Jesus’ death on the cross, so we moved the emphasis to Gethsemane to make less of Jesus’ death. That’s not what we’re doing, but that’s what they say we’re doing. What I think is actually happening there is that human beings need symbols to help them understand complex spiritual topics. And what Jesus is doing in dying and rising again is very complex. The cross wasn’t really available to us as a symbol for the historic reasons I mentioned earlier, and we needed something to help us understand the ways in which Christ suffered for us. And because Jesus suffered in both places – Gethsemane and the cross- it made sense to turn to Gethsemane as a symbol. So in 1957, we have David O McKay saying that its not wise to use a cross because it’s still seen as too Catholic, 40 years later things have changed enough that it makes sense for Gordon B Hinkley to say, “It was the redemption which He worked out in the Garden of Gethsemane and upon the cross of Calvary which made His gift immortal, universal, and everlasting.”

For me, all of this brings to mind a quote from the Catholic scholar Stephen H. Webb. Webb never converts to our church, but he was very friendly and fair to our beliefs. He has a great quote that says members of our church, “depart(s) from traditional theology most radically only when it is trying to do justice to the honor and glory of Jesus Christ.” And in another place, he says that our, “Christology born out of a surplus rather than an insufficiency of faith. It puts creedal Christians in the odd position of saying that Mormons make too much of Jesus.” And I think that’s what’s happening here. Because some of our theology happened in a bit of isolation from other groups we were able to develop an entire area of understanding about Christ’s suffering that Protestants and Evangelicals didn’t. And now we find ourselves in a place of being able to say that both are good AND the entire reason for using a symbol in the first place is to point to a reality. Symbols are not things on their own, they point to something else. And this is how Elder Holland is able to make the point he is making in his “Lifted Up upon the Cross” talk. His point being that a symbol is nothing if we don’t take the reality of the thing seriously. Speaking of our faith he says, “It has nothing to do with pendants or jewelry, with steeples or signposts. It has to do, rather, with the rock-ribbed integrity and stiff moral backbone that Christians should bring to the call Jesus has given to every one of His disciples. In every land and age, He has said to us all, “If any man [or woman] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

Stephen Webb is right. This isn’t us trying to get out of taking Jesus seriously as Evangelicals sometimes claim – it’s us taking Jesus very seriously. And if you can get to that part of the conversation with your Evangelical friends or family members, you will find a great deal in common as this is what many of them want to do too.

My hope is that in talking about all of this today we’re getting ready to talk about the atonement next week. I’ll give you a sneak peak….in our church we talk about “the atonement” in the singular. In the Evangelical world, they talk about, “atonement theories” in the plural. And it’s fascinating what’s going on there. I think you’ll be really interested. So join me next week for that. I look forward to seeing you.

More Come, Follow Me resources here.


Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.

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